How do you build a social contract?

A really important element of an RPG session or group is the social contract: the rules, explicit or not, between the people in the room about how you’re going to play and how you’re going to treat each other. For something so important, though, it can be really hard to find ways to craft a good one. It can be especially hard when you’re in a situation or a culture where explicitly discussing this kind of thing is difficult.

There are a lot of elements to consider when you’re thinking about the social contract:

  • What level of racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, etc. are the people at the table going to tolerate? (And before you say “zero tolerance”, remember all the problems with “zero” tolerance policies.)
  • When something objectionable does come up, how are you going to handle it? This is almost more important than what levels of various objectionable things your group can tolerate, because the fact is, though you may say “Our standard is no X and only a little bit of Y”, different people will have different definitions in different contexts about what constitutes X, Y and “a little bit”. Someone might bring up something they thought was Z, but it turns out is totally someone else’s X. Is it the responsibility of the person who finds something objectionable to bring it up then and there? (But some things are so sensitive that it’s difficult to even discuss them, in the moment.) Are you going to use the ‘draw a curtain’, ‘X card’, or other methods of handling those difficult moments? How will you deal with those kinds of things after the fact?
  • To what extent are the people at the table willing to push boundaries? (Some kinds of games may demand pushing boundaries to work; but not everyone wants their boundaries pushed, and different people have different limits at different times.) What protocols should be in place to check if this kind of thing is okay before it happens, and how do you handle it when it comes up?
  • What styles of game are everyone interested in? How much railroading is okay? How will narrative power be shared (or not)? What do you do when tastes change? What about when new definitions or understandings emerge? What different play styles do you all have? What if someone usually prefers gritty action with a lot of GM prep, but today they want to play a comedic game with equal narrative control? How do you all want to handle it when one player is just rarin’ to kill things and someone else is in a mood for something contemplative?
  • How much time do you want to spend on the game play itself, and how much time is okay to spend on joking around, catching up on each other’s lives outside of the game, and other time spent not actually gaming?
  • How is everyone getting to the game? Can/should anyone help others with transportation?
  • Are snacks okay? What about drinks? Are you going to permit alcohol at the table? Who brings what? Is it any particular person’s responsibility?
  • What is everyone’s time commitment? How do you agree on scheduling? How late is too late? How many sessions do you want to have planned in advance? If someone has to cancel, how should they let everyone else know? What kinds of cancellations are acceptable, and what aren’t? What’s the minimum number of people to still play with, and who makes the call? How often can someone cancel and still be part of the group?
  • What is each person’s tolerance for Monty Python jokes? What about awful puns? What other kinds of jokes are appreciated, disliked, ill-tolerated, etc.? Is it going to be annoying if someone constantly makes up nicknames for the NPCs?
  • Who brings all the supplies needed? Does each player need to bring pens, paper, pencils, dice, beads, minis, etc.? If not, who? Who keeps track of what? Who keeps the character sheets (if any)?
  • Are you going to keep notes? Will some designated player do so? Do they get any compensation (a free share in the carpool gas fund; an extra slice of pizza; double XP)? Who keeps track of the notes? Do they also present the notes to the group, or does someone else do that? Are there other things that members will get incentives for (being GM, bringing food, bringing supplies, keeping track of character sheets, consistent attendance, etc.)?
  • Are there going to be reminders of upcoming sessions sent out by email or text or whatever? Whose responsibility is that? When should they send them out (a day before the game, a week before, immediately after the previous session, etc.)?
  • What forms of communication (text, phone, email, IM, etc.) does everyone prefer for discussing or notifying each other about the game?
  • Where are you going to play? If a particular person is going to host, what is expected of them for doing so? What is their reward for doing so? If you’re playing at an FLGS or other public space, what rules of the space do you need to abide by? If there’s a fee, who pays it and how? Are there pets in the gaming space? What to do about potential allergens? How about accessibility issues?
  • When you’re playing games that require a GM, how much prep should the GM do? Do they get a reward (a ride, a free share of the pizza, etc.) as a result?
  • Is it acceptable to be on your cellphone at the table? Is everyone supposed to stay off electronic devices while gaming? What about people who need to be on call for work?
  • Which of these questions do you care about more than others?
  • How are you going to discover what the answers are to all this? How will the group work through differences of opinion? What happens when the answers change?

Different answers to even one of these questions can lead to radically different experiences around the table.

One of the trickiest parts of hammering out a social contract is the actual work of discussing it. There are a lot of variables to handle; it’s not really practical to just sit down and talk about every single item and expect to reach a clear consensus. At least, not with any group I’ve ever been in.

One thing I don’t like is trusting the mechanics of the game to create the social contract. A lot of games have really good advice for how the game runs best; and a lot have nifty mechanics that encourage great play. But no game can stop players from accidentally getting outside someone’s comfort zone, hogging the cheese-puffs or narrating more than their fair share. The game itself can help a bunch; but the actual forging and enforcement of the social contract is always going to depend on the people at the table.

It feels like there should be some way to turn the creation of a social contract — the process of asking important questions, and finding good answers to them — into a game. I’ve gotten as far as designing cards for a card game, based on many of the questions above, but I couldn’t figure out a way to make it an actual game.

There are, of course, tons of questions that don’t have to be answered right away. Not everyone even knows what their tolerance for Monty Python jokes is, right? And a lot of the questions kind of get answered organically, as part of organizing the game. “I’m running a multi-year campaign at my house. I will supply snacks and diet drinks; if you want anything else, please bring some to share. Please leave your pets at home.” “We’ll be meeting at Pizza House on Donnerville Rd., in the back room; we’ll get a pizza first thing, then start gaming once we’re done.” “Game will be on Roll20, starting at +8 UTC Wednesdays; please make sure your AV setup works well before joining.”

Overall, I think it’s good to aim for somewhere in the middle. Don’t try to set down a legalistic contract from the start; that way leads to rules lawyering and annoyance (even to the point of never being able to get a group together). But at the same time, don’t leave huge swaths of important issues unsettled. I’ve been in gaming groups where leaving answers to some of these questions dangling meant the eventual end of the group. Be neither afraid to ask important questions, nor intent on only finding ironclad answers to them. It’s a gaming group, and the rules are supposed to be a way to help everyone have fun.

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